Anyone else got the feeling the local mainstream media coverage of the WikiLeaks cables has been a little, well, underdone?

Julian Assange’s mum has got about as much coverage as there’s been hard analysis of the significance of some of the revelations for Australian foreign policy — particularly those pertinent to our region, and most especially in regard to China and Korea, where we’ll be putting troops in harm’s way if things turn uglier.

Much of the local coverage has been of the judgemental variety: either that WikiLeaks has perpetrated some profoundly evil act — although so far not even the most froth-mouthed News Limited commentators have gone the way of their American idols and demanded the extra-judicial killing of Assange — or the whole thing’s rather ‘meh’ — admittedly a difficult reaction to avoid when confronted with the shock revelation that it’s not just most of the democratic world that regards Russia as a corrupt kleptocracy, the State Department does too. Well spotted, Foggy Bottom.

Maybe they finally got round to reading the new le Carré.

It’s also true that our mastheads lack the analytical firepower to properly consider the foreign policy implications of the revelations — certainly not in the manner of The New York Times which, in spite of criticisms that it has allowed the US government to vet its copy, has provided serious contextual analysis and value-adding to the material, better than The Guardian, which has been rather more interested in international personalities instead of the more complex diplomatic significance of what we’re learning.

There’ll doubtless be more local analysis when material more pertinent to Australia is released (our media being in permanent thrall to any international attention directed to Australia), but in the interim what little we’re being offered appears a colossal exercise in missing the point.

This rolling series of releases — and WikiLeaks has barely begun to release the amount of material it has — is raising fundamental issues not merely about statecraft and diplomacy but information, power and the role of the media. Guy Rundle spotted this immediately, and while I would say that, wouldn’t I, his analysis has been the best you’ll see in an Australian publication. This is about far more than a simple matter of leaking sensitive cables, or newspaper coverage of those leaks.

Instead we’re given an uncomprehending coverage by the Australian media, as if it simply can’t process what’s happening, and needs to keep trying different narratives to see if they fit what’s being observed, sticking with whatever seems to temporarily do the trick. Given personalities are always easier to discuss than even the simplest policy issues, most of this has focussed on what ambassadors said about political leaders, and Assange himself — Assange as Bond-style supervillain; Assange as alleged rapist-wanted man; Assange as net libertarian (“information yearns to be free!”). None of that comes remotely near explaining what Assange is trying to do, which — regardless of how you feel about it — you have to go beyond the mainstream media to start to understand.

It’s not entirely fair to blame the media, though, because the Australian government is doing exactly the same thing. The response of the federal government has been… I was going to say “instructive”, but it’s more accurately, and sadly, affirmative of what you suspected, that politicians and bureaucrats can’t see this through any other than a rather 20th century, Cold War-style lens.

Accordingly, the whole business is being treated like an espionage case: Robert McClelland has made vague threats about arresting Assange and providing “every assistance” to the United States on “law enforcement action” and a “taskforce” has been assembled to consider the implications of the material being released. More seriously, McClelland has spoken of criminal offences in relation to publishing WikiLeaks-related material and said that the media may be asked to refrain from publishing certain material on national security grounds.

It barely needs to be said that McClelland’s suggestion that media outlets might either be asked to not publish material, or might find themselves charged if they do, appears to entirely miss that this is no longer 1985 and media executives are no longer the information gatekeepers they once were, even if they were inclined to cooperate.

The Cold War analog doesn’t work because, even if they weren’t moral equivalents, the two Cold War players were mirrors in their goals and apparati and had a dense, mutually-agreed set of rules to play by. WikiLeaks, however, is actively subverting any rules, far more asymmetric and nebulous even than the Islamofascist terrorism threat used so successfully to maintain the national security state in the absence of our Cold War enemies.

Dorothy, we’re not in West Berlin anymore.

The prime minister has gone further than McClelland, declaring the release of cables by WikiLeaks “illegal”, the sort of issue that, thankfully, courts still decide rather than politicians, and which in any event is hardly as clear as Julia Gillard seems to suggest, given she didn’t even say where exactly WikiLeaks’ publication would be considered illegal.

More to the point, she appears to have forgotten that Assange is an Australian citizen, and as such is entitled to a basic level of concern for his treatment from the government of his country — a level of concern that is entirely absent from the remarks of either the Attorney-General or the prime minister. We’ve been down this road before with David Hicks, and that didn’t end well for the government concerned. And Assange is no David Hicks (although, some evidently regard him as far more dangerous).

I’ll finish on a complete digression: when the music industry first switched from vinyl to CD, one particularly prescient musician — can’t recall the name, too vague to Google — suggested that once songs were reduced to a series of 0s and 1s, they were implicitly devalued, and that eventually the music industry would come to rue undermining its basic product in this way.

It took another decade and filesharing software to do it, but he or she was exactly right. The digitisation of information implicitly devalues it, makes it vastly, world-changingly easier to share. And that process doesn’t just change relationships within existing systems, it changes the systems themselves, fundamentally. Relatively trivial industries like entertainment have spent a decade discovering that horrible fact.

You can’t help but wonder how long it will take governments to work out that they are now in exactly the same situation as the music and movie execs who’ve spent so long trying to prop up by force the old system even as it collapses around them.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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